While in the sixth grade, Junior’s parents deliberated where he should attend high school. Back then, elementary schools ran through the sixth grade, and high school began the following year. School district lines converged on their block of Union Avenue, and there was a choice between three schools. Central High was a school geared towards the upper-middle class, and Ottawa Hills was a newer school catering towards the elite. South High, though, consisted of a more diverse collection of students; working class folks and minorities sent their children to South, as well as a few pockets of well-to-do families. The Fords sought help from family friend Ralph Conger, who was the athletic director at Central. “You send Junior to South,” was Conger’s advice. “That’s where he’ll learn more about living.” Jerry and Dorothy saw that South offered the greatest opportunity for their son, and the younger Ford began his high school career there in September 1925.
South High was a relatively new school, a three-story brick building constructed in 1915, and just a little more than a mile’s distance from the old Ford household on Union. Ford managed the early years of high school well enough, and at the end of eighth grade, he had reached the limit of compulsory education in the state of Michigan. His step-father had left school after the eighth grade to find a job, and he wanted Junior to have every opportunity to graduate from high school. It was at this point that Jerry Ford Jr. decided he was going to set his career track to that of a lawyer, which came as a surprise to his parents. There were no lawyers in the Ford family, and Junior was not a particularly gifted speaker. All the same, Junior began to take college-prep courses and joined the debate team to give him practice for his aspiring career.
Over the next four years, he became a football star, which made him a popular guy. He drew the interest of many girls in his class, but had few dates. Ford had very little time for a social life between schoolwork and sports. He worked several jobs on the side as well, assisting his step-father’s paint business and working concessions at Ramona Park.
He also had a job making hamburgers at a diner, Bill's Place, which was also the scene of a dramatic meeting with his biological father, Leslie King. This was the first time that Jerry had ever met the man, and the meeting caused him much stress. After the meeting with King at the diner, though, Jerry did not encounter him again for several years.
Despite his busy schedule, he ran for student council president his senior year, which was technically his first political campaign. By the time he entered the contest, another slate of candidates had already registered as Republicans, the favored party, and he opted instead for Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Progressive party. Ford’s leading opposition was William Schuling, also a popular senior. Jerry would find, however, that the deck was stacked against him in 1930.
His most daunting opponents were his own coaches. “(Ford) was out for three sports, and the coaches couldn’t see him directing a Student Council meeting when the teams were practicing,” his football coach, Mr. Gettings, explained. “I had physical education classes, and I told the boys in the class to vote for Bill Schuling because we needed Jerry out for football and basketball and track. So the Coaches campaigned against him and Bill Schuling won. It wasn’t (Jerry’s) fault because the coaches ganged up on him.”
In the spring of 1931, a theater offered a contest to select the city’s most popular senior. The Majestic Theater was a downtown fixture, a three-story vaudeville and movie house that seated 1,200 patrons. Feeling the sting of having lost the Student Council election, he was determined to win this new challenge. The voting extended through the month of March, and Junior would take his brother, Tom, downtown to pick up discarded ballots. “It was the only time he stuffed the ballot box,” Tom recalled. But Ford was not alone in this practice. “My problem was the other guys had their people in there, too,” Tom said. With Tom’s help and the help of others, Junior won the election, garnering over 1,000 votes. In June he received his reward when he joined winners of similar contests from other cities to make an all-expenses-paid trip by rail to Washington, D.C. This was Ford’s first trip to the nation’s capital, where he enjoyed a week of sightseeing.
Upon finishing high school, he had his sights set on college, and football was key to his collegiate opportunities. He had considered several schools, but the University of Michigan stood out as the best fit. He received help from Principal Arthur Krause, who started a scholarship for Ford, and well as from family and friends. Michigan football coach Harry Kipke courted the star South High center, securing Jerry a job waiting on tables to pay for meals. “Many people helped me,” Ford reflected, “but football was my ticket to college. That’s the only way I got to Michigan, and that was the luckiest break I ever had.”